Get the facts in order: A history of women’s leadership


After giving one of the three plenary addresses on the Eucharist at a gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1997, church historian Gary Marcy and two theologians were lambasted in an article for Commonweal by Cardinal Avery Dulles. Macy’s address suggested that in the Middle Ages, women may have presided at communion ceremonies. Dulles did not approve.

“This got to be a big thing,” Macy recalls. “There were articles and letters.” When the dust finally seemed to have settled, a colleague stopped him in the hallway. “I heard you proved that women were ordained,” she said to Macy, who responded quickly, “I did no such thing. I just talked about how in the 12th century they were still debating whether or not women could be ordained.

“Besides, women never were ordained at all,” Macy said before walking back to his office.

But was that true? he wondered. It was an assumption of the church that few, including him, had questioned. Soon the historian found himself on a “fascinating hunt,” researching what would become his book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination. “I had to figure out, if we have all these historical references to ordained women in the Middle Ages, why people keep saying that women were never ordained.”


You say the church has a hidden history of women in leadership and authority roles. Why is it hidden?

It’s hidden because there was a deliberate attempt to change the understanding of the history, and it was successful. It’s historically documented that women were ordained to leadership roles in the early and medieval church. But it became controversial. By the 13th century, the church was saying women were never ordained. They didn’t say, “Women used to be ordained, but now we’re going to stop it.” They went further and built a series of arguments to prove that women had never been ordained.

An influential canon lawyer, Huguccio of Bologna, wrote that even if you ordained a woman, it wouldn’t take because she doesn’t have the right matter. That argument stuck, and century after century the assumption was that women were never and could not be ordained.

What are some surprising examples of women in church leadership?

There are a few examples that might surprise people. Maybe most surprising are the abbesses of Las Huelgas near Burgos in Spain, who acted as extraterritorial bishops until the 1870s.

They established parishes for the 36 villages under them. They dismantled parishes. They had to give faculties to any priest who heard confessions or said Mass in their diocese. They held their own synods. An abbess did everything a bishop did except ordain priests. She had a miter and crozier. There was an order of clerics that ran the hospital that she was in charge of, and they had to take an oath of obedience to her just as clerics have to take an oath of obedience to their bishop.


After the Council of Trent in the 16th century said, “No more of these extraterritorial bishops; we’re going to get rid of them all,” one of the abbesses of Las Huelgas, Anne of Austria, wrote to the pope. She asked, “How would that apply to us?” He wrote back, “Oh, don’t worry. Don’t worry. It doesn’t apply to you.” She was much too powerful for him to mess with.

Another example is St. Radegund, a sixth-century queen of France. She became queen because the king of France, Clothar I, had invaded her father’s kingdom, killed almost all her relatives, and then took her captive and eventually married her.

Around 550, after Clothar killed Radegund’s brother, she’d finally had it with him and fled to Bishop Médard of Noyen. She said, “Ordain me a deacon.” And he said, “No, the king’s knights are in hot pursuit. I’m in big trouble.” And she said, “Do you obey God, or do you obey man?” He was struck by that, so he ordained her a deacon. She became an extremely powerful abbess as well as a deacon.

Would Médard have believed he was making history by ordaining the first woman deacon?

He would have known it was possible because there was a rite for the ordination of women deacons in the Roman Pontifical, a liturgical book, up through the 12th century. We have all of the ordination rites for women deacons from the eighth through the 12th century.


There’s a wonderful legend about Bridget of Ireland, written hundreds of years after her death, half in Latin and half in Celtic

The story is that St. Mel, who was a bishop, was going to ordain Bridget an abbess. He was so flabbergasted and overtaken with her holiness that he opened the book of rites to the wrong place and ordained her a bishop. And Mel said, “OK, she’s a bishop. That’s it.”

Whoever wrote that story thought that if you ordained a woman a bishop, that it would “take.” In this story Mel said, “And this virgin will be the only woman bishop in Ireland.” So they not only thought you could ordain a woman a deacon, they thought you could ordain a woman a bishop.

Given that that story is a legend, does it have historical significance?

While it may be historically unlikely that this ever happened, it shows the person writing this ninth-century story thought that it was perfectly possible.


The same is true with these ordination rites for women deacons. It’s far too expensive to write these liturgical books and then not use them.

What do the rites say?

For women deacons the oldest rite we have in the West comes from an eighth-century book that was used by Bishop Egbert of York. The Eastern rites are much older. They go all the way back to the third century, and there are lots more of them.


The eighth-century rite is an interesting one because there is a single prayer in the middle of the rite, “The prayer for ordaining a male or a female deacon.” It’s the same prayer. But there are other prayers for blessing male and female deacons in Egbert’s pontifical as well. The prayer for females stresses virginity, while the prayer for males asks for peace and prosperity. But the prayer for ordaining them is the same.

The one with the longest prayer is a 10th-century ritual in the Romano-Germanic Pontifical, and it’s very influential. It has the complete liturgy for the ordination of a female and of a male deacon. The rite for a woman deacon takes place within the Mass and begins with the instructions, “When the bishop blesses the deacon, he places the orarium on her neck. However, when she proceeds to the church, she wears it around her neck so that the ends of the both sides of the orarium are under her tunic.”


The orarium is the stole that the deacon or priest wears when he’s preaching. Another place in the ritual they call it a stola. So she gets a stole for reading the gospel and preaching. That’s typical for a deacon and not different from the male ritual. There are other parts of the ritual—the reception of a veil, ring, and crown—that are also part of a ritual used to consecrate virgins.

In the 12th century a rite appears in the Roman Pontifical, but it seems to be a streamlined version of the one in the Romano-Germanic Pontifical.

There’s a wonderful 12th-century gospel illumination of the Annunciation, and Mary is dressed exactly like a woman deacon would have been. She has the orarium tucked under her tunic. It’s almost like the Archangel Gabriel is coming to ordain her a deacon so she could proclaim the gospel, which in her case would be, of course, to bear Jesus.

Can we tell from the rites how women deacons ministered?

The clearest evidence is that they read the gospel, because again and again you’ll see references to that, particularly in the 10th through the 12th centuries.


We also have sources, such as a ninth-century commentary on canon law, that says women deacons instructed Christian women. So they preached—but to women. We know that in the very early centuries they prepared women for baptism when there was full immersion, because the men weren’t going to do that.

Their ministry seems to have been primarily to women. That’s why in these later centuries—the 10th to the 12th centuries—some abbesses were also ordained deacons. A lot of sources from that time will say abbesses are the new deacons, and they’ll say that because the abbesses read the gospel. But there was a whole other ordination rite for abbesses.

These rituals for women deacons exist in the West through the 12th century. Then in the 13th-century Roman Pontifical, that prayer for women deacons is completely gone. It doesn’t get copied. The 12th century is also the last time a reference to a woman deacon, in this case, Heloise of Paris, is made.

Why do you think the rite was eliminated?

The very important thing to realize here is that ordination didn’t mean the same thing up through the 12th century as it would mean from the 13th century on. There’s a huge shift in the definition.

To put it as simply as possible, for over half of Christian history ordination was the process by which a community picked a person to do a particular job, any job. The installation rite for that was called an ordination. Any time you moved to a new position in the church in your community, there would be an ordination rite, and they existed for both men and women in the church.

So for example, prior to the 13th century we talk about marriage as an ordination, because you’re moving to a different position in the community. There are ordination rites for an empress. Kings were called ordained. The Rule of St. Benedict refers to the installation of a new abbot or abbess as an ordination.

The Latin word ordo just basically meant to put something in order, and ordinatio was the act of putting in order. It was a fairly common Latin word. So if you put your books in alphabetical order, you ordained them. When you put your community in order and you give people different jobs, that’s the ordo. That’s very different from what we mean by ordination now.

What changed this understanding of ordination?

Ordination gets redefined in the 12th and 13th centuries and applied to the people who serve at the altar. Ordination gives you the power to consecrate the bread and wine and to lead the liturgy. Then everything focuses on the priesthood.


There’s a big debate in the 12th century about whether or not you have to be a priest to consecrate. Some theologians said, “No. Whenever anyone says the words of consecration, the consecration happens. Man or woman, doesn’t matter.” Some said, “It isn’t the words. It’s the sign of the cross they make.” Others said, “It’s the Holy Spirit coming down from the East.”

So there’s a debate about that, but that debate doesn’t take place until the 12th century. It’s at this point the church starts saying, for the first time, “Don’t ordain women,” which at least makes it sound like we once did.

So isn’t it misleading to say women were once ordained, since the word had a different meaning back then?

Under the later definition of ordination, these historical women weren’t ordained. There is no ordination rite of women to the priesthood that’s left in existence, so we have no historical evidence that women were ordained specifically to consecrate the bread and the wine. There aren’t that many historical examples of women leading liturgy, and even if they did lead the liturgy, the argument that women weren’t really ordained insists that women were not saying the words of consecration.

But historical evidence doesn’t say whether or not women said the words of consecration because it wasn’t important to say whether or not they had the ability to say the words back then. The theory that the words of consecration effected the change in the bread and wine had not yet developed. Looking for women who had the power to consecrate is sort of like looking for a smoking gun before there was gunpowder. The sources wouldn’t talk about men saying the words of consecration either.

Another argument is that those examples of ordained women are anomalies, and besides, there were laws saying women should stop doing it. So, clearly, they should never have been doing it in the first place. But it’s very important to realize that’s a theological argument, because that’s argu–ing which definition of ordination is the correct one. Let me give you an example to make that clearer.

You could say that Elizabeth I was Queen of England, and once she was crowned, she really was the queen. She ruled England. When she made a law, it was the law. And if you disagreed with her, you lost your head. She ruled that country.

Elizabeth II is Queen of England today. People don’t dispute that she’s queen, but she doesn’t do any of those things that Elizabeth I did. She’s a different kind of queen. She’s a figurehead and she tries to keep her family out of the tabloid press. That’s about all she does.

Political scientists could ask, “Well, which one of those is really queen?” Because now being queen means different things. You could say that only Elizabeth I was really a queen, but historians are never going to do that.


Historians go back and say, “If, under the definition of the time, they were considered ordained, they’re called ordained.” It’s not a historian’s job to make a theological argument.

Historically there’s no question women were ordained. Theologically you could say, “That’s not a real ordination.” But that’s a theological argument.

If we’re only applying today’s theological definition, wouldn’t you have to say that men ordained before the 13th century weren’t actually ordained either?

Well, you could argue that. You could also say that we only have the ordination rites for men to the priesthood. But if you’re going to argue that, then you also have to say that all these other men who were ordained in various jobs other than priesthood would also not be considered ordained.

Again everything centers on the right to consecrate the bread and wine. In the 13th century the first person to really make this very clear was a theologian named Alexander of Hales. He said the sacrament of orders is about getting the power to consecrate.

Before the 13th century, they would never have thought about being able to consecrate the bread and wine as having a particular power. They wouldn’t have thought about it that way. It’s really hard to go back and pose those questions to those sources.

Why did women stop taking on these kinds of leadership roles in the church?

Boy, I wish I knew the answer to that question. It seems to be a combination of a lot of different things, and I don’t know which led to the other.

Starting in the 13th century there’s a strong influence of Aristotelian philosophy, and Aristotelian biology is not particularly kind to women. In the middle of the 12th century the very influential canon lawyer Gracian of Bologna said women can’t be ordained priests or deacons. The reason is women cannot be witnesses in a legal case against a priest because they’re not of equal status. But that’s just his opinion.

Then a whole debate started, and some said, “Well, women used to be ordained but we don’t do it anymore.” Some said, “Yes, we still do. Abbesses are still ordained.” And some said, “No, not only don’t we ordain them, we never did.” By the 13th century that becomes the dominant opinion.


Now that’s difficult because you have examples of laws that say, “Women have to stop serving at the altar.” Some of the old laws even talk about both the presbytera and the diacona.

Well, presbytera is just the feminine for priest, and diacona is feminine for deacon. So then they had to explain these references away somehow, because it was never supposed to have happened.

Were there other historical arguments against putting women in church leadership?

The arguments change. Most of the medieval arguments have been dropped, the ones that say that women are too stupid, they don’t have the mental facilities to be priests. One of the arguments was that if they’re up on the pulpit preaching, they will just enflame the lust of all the men in the congregation.

Nobody’s going to use those arguments now. No one is going to go back to scripture and say women are not made in the image of God. They’re not going to go there. That’s not going to fly.

But there is one early 14th-century argument that is still used. Duns Scotus, the Franciscan theologian right at the very end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, said, “There is absolutely no reason why women can’t be ordained. They’re the intellectual equals of men. They’re the spiritual equals of men. Their souls are the same as men’s souls. But Jesus didn’t ordain any women, and we can’t question God. God is not reducible to reason.”

This was the big argument in all his theology. He would give example after example to show that God doesn’t have to be reasonable, that God is beyond human reason such as: “Jesus didn’t ordain women. We have no right to question God, so therefore women can’t be ordained. The church says they can’t.”

That’s the argument still used today. The argument is that we have no control. It’s out of our hands.

The system that we have now, to a large extent, was created by the 11th-century reform movement and codified in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.


I would argue, as a historian, that another big change isn’t going to happen. It’s already happened. In fact, everything has changed except for a realization that everything’s changed.

Eighty percent of the ministry in the United States is done by laypeople. That’s a massive change in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. And 80 percent of that 80 percent are women. But the implications of that haven’t hit people yet.

This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of  U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 1, pages 18-22).

Read more from Gary Macy on the history of Catholic orders.

Image: St. Radegund by unknown [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons